Alaska Life

More a curiosity than a harbinger, the story of the first flight in Alaska by aviator James Martin

Martin, James Vernon

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

The entire culture and long history of airplanes in Alaska can be traced back to a simple, humble origin. Long before Anchorage became the air crossroads of the world, before all the tales of bush pilots, and decades before the creation of an independent Air Force, there was a financially disastrous series of aerial exhibitions in 1913 Fairbanks. Back when airplanes were called aeroplanes, James Martin made the first powered flight in Alaska, a stunt that did nothing to predict the future.

The history of aviation in Alaska before Martin’s 1913 flight is minimal. On July 4, 1899, John “Professor” Leonard made a hot air balloon ascent in Juneau, followed by a planned parachute jump. The following year, he was in Nome. A photographer joined him on some of the ascents, resulting in the first Alaska aerial photography.

The first airplane in Alaska was a complete failure. Henry Peterson, also known as “Professor,” built a simple biplane in Nome based on plans ordered through the mail. On May 9, 1911, eight years after the first powered flight by the Wright brothers, Peterson towed his ski-equipped plane to a flat area outside town for its first test. The large crowd eagerly watched as the Professor opened the throttle. The engine roared as much as the little engine could, but the plane refused to move. Attempts to push the aircraft also failed to produce flight. Later tests were similarly unproductive.

In 1912, aviator James Martin gave a speech to the Seattle Press Club, which caught the attention of two Fairbanks businessmen, Arthur Williams and R. S. McDonald. Williams owned the Arcade Café, and McDonald edited the Alaska Citizen newspaper. Together they formed the Fairbanks Amusement Co. with the initial grand idea of bringing Martin to Alaska for a series of exhibitions. To be clear, Williams and McDonald planned the flights as a business venture first and a civic endeavor second. Profit was the primary motive. Some notoriety for Fairbanks would be a pleasant bonus.

Martin (1885-1956), a Harvard University graduate who organized the first international air meet in America, had spent the previous few years traveling the airplane exhibition circuit in the Lower 48. The press consistently described him as Captain Martin, not for any military service, though he had served in the Merchant Marine. Instead, early pilots picked up the naval tradition, in the way that anyone in charge of a vessel might like to be called captain.

In those early days of aviation, pilots were also frequently called “birdmen.” The newspaper coverage of Martin’s trip north included amusing article headlines like “Martin Demonstrated Ability as Bird Man,” “Birdman in Action,” and “Arrangements Are Completed for Three Flights of Birdman.”

An advertisement using aviator James Martin's name and likeness to sell clothes

The aerial demonstration in Fairbanks was part of the 1913 Fourth of July celebrations. While Martin’s fee was not announced, Williams and McDonald were rumored to have paid heavily for the privilege of his presence, plus $500, roughly $15,000 in 2022 after accounting for inflation, for the use of Exposition Park. Exposition Park, then primarily used for baseball games, evolved into Weeks Field, the city’s main airfield through 1952, when the new International Airport opened.

The initial Fairbanks reaction was a mixture of intrigue and doubt. Many residents did not believe the flight would indeed occur as promised. Williams and McDonald transferred the final payment for Martin’s appearance to the Northern Commercial Co., or NCC, which held it in trust. George Coleman, manager of the NCC’s Fairbanks office, announced to the local newspapers, “This will clear up any doubt that may exist in the minds of residents of Fairbanks touching upon the faith of the proposition.”

Accompanied by wife and fellow pilot Lily Irvine Martin, Martin traveled by boat from California to Skagway, then rode the railroad to Whitehorse. From there, they boarded the steamer Alaska on its maiden voyage for the American-Yukon Navigation Co. down to Fairbanks.

The plane, an open cockpit Gage-Martin biplane with an eight-cylinder Hall-Scott motor, was partially reassembled at the Pioneer Dock, then towed to Exposition Park where the wings were attached. A temporary hangar, a framework covered in tarps, was erected on the ballfield.

James and Lily worked together, prepping the plane for its historic flight. Crowds followed their every movement, and many of the curious onlookers were free with their advice, something that might not shock longtime Alaskans. One man, who had most likely never seen an airplane before, told the Martins, “Pardon me for appearing to butt in, but I don’t know whether you know it or not, but a part of the aeroplane here is broken.” The Martins assured him the part was, in fact, a brace and not an actual component of the plane. On a different night, a drunken man loudly asked passersby where the Martins were staying, as he needed to tell them how to really fly a plane.

A Martin Aeroplanes advertisement from Aerial Age Weekly dated Dec. 29, 1919

The first flight was scheduled for July 3, 1913. Williams and McDonald charged $2.50 for adults and $1 for children, roughly $75 and $30 in 2022 dollars. Kids under the age of six were admitted for free.

This exhibition began somewhat ominously. The Martins had been unable to obtain gasoline of the necessary quality and were forced to use a lower octane fuel. So, when Captain Martin started the engine for that first airplane flight in Alaska, it coughed, sputtered, and died. However, on the next attempt, he lifted off with no problems and flew out over the city. Nine minutes later, he passed back over the grandstand to the cheers of the crowd and lightly landed. After a brief wait, he took off again, returning after seven minutes. There were no tricks, loops, rolls, or dives. An airplane simply took off, turned south, and returned.

Due to the number of wood-burning appliances, there was dense smoke in the air, and Martin’s visibility was poor. Spectators in the park had difficulty tracking the plane as it moved into the distance. Still, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described the aircraft rising “as beautifully as a monster bird,” a simile that somehow must have possessed more positive connotations a century ago. Contemporary accounts placed the peak airspeed as between 45 and 60 miles per hour with a highest ascent of 400 feet above the ground.

When Captain Martin first took to the air, a reported 250 people were inside Exposition Park. Unfortunately, for the organizers, an estimated 2,000 more people watched from outside the park, without the burden of paying for a ticket. As the Daily News-Miner noted, “Only a small crowd of people were present at the park at each of the two exhibitions, although the buildings, housetops and other vantage points swarmed with people who were unwilling to pay their way in.”

Fairbanks then was roughly 10 blocks wide, and most residents realized they could view the historic feat about as easily from outside the park as within. Martin made three more short flights in Fairbanks, twice on July 4 and once on July 5. McDonald and Williams lowered the ticket prices for the last exhibition to a single dollar for everyone. The paid attendance failed to markedly increase with about the same ratio of paying customers to outside gawkers.

Daily News-Miner editor W.F. Thompson lamented the outcome, calling it a “shame and disgrace” for the young city. He sharply criticized those freeloaders “who wished to enjoy their first aviation exhibition at the expense of the promoters.” He concluded, “It will be a very long time before anyone here spends any great money to brink an amusement enterprise into the Tanana just for what they can get from the people in paid admission.” Williams claimed to have lost $1,000, about $30,000 in 2022 dollars, on the affair.

Faced with the logistics and costs of shipping the plane back to their home base in California, the Martins offered the machine then and there to the highest bidder. When no takers appeared, they dissembled the plane, crated it, and shipped it downriver to St. Michael, and from there on to San Francisco.

For most Alaskans in 1913, Captain Martin and his biplane were curiosities, more like a circus act than a harbinger for the future. While some had ambitious plans for airplanes, few then could have foreseen the role and prominence of aircraft a few decades later, let alone today. And there is certainly more money to be made with airplanes today than there was more than a century ago.

Key sources:

“Aerial Exhibitions Are Very Successful.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 5, 1913, 3.

“Aviator Sending Aeroplane North.” Fairbanks Daily Times, May 31, 1913, 3.

“Aviator Will Come North.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, April 16, 1913, 1.

Cole, Dermot. “Alaska’s First Air Show Proved Popular, But Sponsors Lost a Bundle.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 1, 2013, B1.

“Crowds Proffer Aid and Advice to Aviator.” Fairbanks Daily Times, June 27, 1913, 3.

Dalton, Mike. “Pioneer Flight 54 Years Ago.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 30, 1967, 9.

“Deposit Money; Aviator Surely to Come North.” Fairbanks Daily Times, April 26, 1913, 3.

James V. Martin Scrapbook.” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

“Last Flight This Evening.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 5, 1913, 4.

Martin Aeroplanes advertisement. Aerial Age Weekly, December 29, 1919, 425.

“Martin Demonstrated Ability as Bird Man.” Fairbanks Alaska Citizen, July 7, 1913, 5.

“The Spirit of Sport.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 5, 1913, 2.

Stevens, Robert W. Alaska Aviation History, Volume One 1897-1928. Des Moines, WA: Polynyas Press, 1990.


David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

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